SpaceX’s Starhopper has finally completed its fourth and final flight demonstration before the commercial space company proceeds with development for the Starship spacecraft.
Starhopper’s last flight took place Tuesday, August 27 at 5:02 P.M. local time from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas test site.
The spacecraft performed a flight hovering at 150 meters above the ground, as per approved circumstances from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The latest flight demonstration was also the highest so far out of the past three (four in total) flight demonstrations that Starhopper has made, which were all from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas test site.
Reportedly, there were two brief hops in early April, which produced barely any separation between the craft and the ground but it was able to fly freely for the first time on July 25, on a test flight that had a targeted altitude of 65 feet (20 m).
“Congrats SpaceX team!!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter just after the fourth flight.
About ten minutes before the flight, locals were evacuated from the nearby Boca Chica Village in case there were any problems with the launch.
A message reportedly sent to Boca Chica residents near SpaceX’s facilities warned about the test, suggesting they go outside during the flight to “avoid or minimize injury” from broken windows in the event of an accident or explosion.
Fortunately, today’s demonstration had no reports about shattered windows or any injury from the test flight, which lasted a total of 57 seconds in the air before making a soft landing back on the Earth’s surface.
Today’s flight was originally scheduled to take place last week. However, SpaceX encountered problems with the FAA—who grants licenses for launches and test flights—regarding the initial 200-meter targeted flight. After some negotiations, the FAA agreed to continue with the demonstration but to a lower height at 150 meters.
A second attempt on August 26 was delayed again moments after the countdown timer ticked down to zero because of an issue with the igniter on Starhopper’s single Raptor engine, Musk said.
This second flight still used the same Raptor engine, nonetheless, similar to what was also used in the first hop. A significant difference this time was that Starhopper did not just go up and down but it was also able to move a little from its original launch site, proving it can maneuver while hovering.
More significantly, it stands to prove the capability of SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket using its Raptor engines.
Starhopper, made of stainless steel, measures about 20 meters tall and nine meters across, stands as a testament to Musk’s original goal of reaching and potentially offering commercial space flights to Mars.
However, the large and bulky Starhopper spacecraft is merely a prototype for the much larger Starship spacecraft that SpaceX is already building.
Once finished, it will be 55 meters tall, as tall as the Statue of Liberty. This reusable spaceship is designed to carry up to 100 people into space using a massive rocket that is also in development called Super Heavy.
Furthermore, apart from Starhopper, Starship will have a total of 35 Raptor engines in its reusable Super Heavy rocket booster.
Now, with Starhopper’s retirement, SpaceX will move its focus towards developing Starship Mk-1 and Starship Mk-2, which are being formed separately in the space company’s Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral, Florida sites respectively, reasoning that a little intra-company competition will improve the final Starship design in terms of technology that would overcome Mars’ harsh environment.
The billionaire entrepreneur has promised to give a Starship design update soon after Starhopper’s final flight.
Don’t be expecting to book a flight to Mars just yet, though. Tentatively, Starship’s initial launch to the Red Planet in the early 2020s will be for establishing refueling stations and potential habituation hubs.
A tentative 2023 commercial launch is currently booked but exclusive for a Japanese man along with his artist friends.
Notably, Starship is a central piece in Musk’s interplanetary space travel ambitions as well as U.S. space agency NASA’s goal to send humans to the moon again by 2024. The Starship rocket is expected to launch up to 24 times a year from SpaceX’s current flagship launchpad 39A.